You’re at the office. Everything had been going so well this morning. You navigated the doughnuts, the pain au chocolat, but then you walk into a meeting room and see it. Some generous bastard has brought cookies. There they are, naked and uncensored, right in front of your face. And god-dammit, they are the triple chocolate kind. Your favourite.
Well now you can barely hear what anyone else is saying because those little pricks are calling your name. Stay strong, you tell yourself. But man, they just look so tempting. And you’ve been so good recently, surely just one can’t hurt?
Look, everyone else is having one.
So you take a cookie, you eat it, and it’s awesome.
But now for the rest of the meeting you can barely hear what anyone is saying because you’re so disappointed with yourself.
I have no willpower. I can’t trust myself to be good.
So later that evening, when no one is around, you have at it.
Ice cream is devoured, tubs at a time, chocolate is inhaled by the bagful. Your stomach is so full, you can barely breathe anymore. And, yeah, after you have consumed, shame and regret consumes you.
You’re faced with this weird paradox. All you want is to lose fat, so why the hell do you keep doing this to yourself? You’re a logical person; this behaviour makes no sense. You figure there’s something wrong with you. A compiler error, a dangling pointer. Maybe you’re insane.
Somehow you fall asleep, and promise yourself you’ll do better tomorrow.
You’re Not Alone: The What The Hell Effect
This seemingly illogical behaviour has been the finding of many studies. Here’s just one:
Dieters and Non-dieters compare ice cream flavours [Polivy, Herman, 1999]
Before getting any ice cream, each group (dieters and non-dieters) were separated into 3 subgroups. Group A were asked to drink 2 milkshakes. Group B were asked to drink 1 milkshake. Group C were not given any milkshake.
Each group then got 3 flavours of ice cream. They were told to rate the flavours, and eat as much ice cream as they wanted.
- Non-dieters: those who hadn’t had any milkshake consumed the most ice cream; those who had 2 milkshakes consumed the least. Sounds obvious, right?
- Dieters reacted the opposite way: those who had no milkshake ate small amounts of ice cream, those who drank 1 shake ate more ice cream, and those who’d consumed 2 milkshakes ate the most ice cream.
While non-dieters tend to regulate their consumption according to internal cues of hunger and satiety, dieters lose the capacity to regulate their intake. So, when the milkshake counters the dieter’s restrained eating, it’s almost like a switch. The researchers call this the What The Hell effect, which occurs as a result of the diet mentality: “What the hell, I’ve blown it anyway, I might as well keep eating before I get back on my diet tomorrow.”
So imagine your goal is to lose fat, and you have implemented a “no sugar” rule, and then you eat a cookie. Eating a cookie is actually in line with your big picture goal of fat loss (eating a single cookie would never be a problem for fat loss). However, your brain has replaced the long term outcome goal (lose fat) with your day-to-day process goal (no sugar). So, since you’ve broken the “no sugar” goal, it feels like you’ve broken the whole thing.
This is why a single cookie can trigger a catastrophe. If there’s no way you can reach your goal for the day, your brain won’t use energy trying to do it. It thinks you’ve already lost. And when you lose perspective like this — when there is clear black and white, all or nothing thinking — how many cookies you eat no longer matters. Couple this with the natural desire to want to soothe yourself through these tricky emotions, and a single cookie can turn into a 3-day bender, with all the self talk that goes along with it:
Something is wrong with me.
I’m addicted to food.
I’m out of control.
I’m disgusted with myself.
This mindset can be triggered not only when you’ve eaten a “forbidden” food. It can be triggered:
- In anticipation of breaking your diet (for example, if you’re going out for dinner that evening and you know what you eat won’t be your ideal meal).
- Because of an emotion: you feel fat, sad, happy, anxious, or even thin.
- When you eat something that you had previously “forbidden”.
So what can you do about this?
Eat What You Want
The first step is to stop banning foods. Making foods, or entire food groups, forbidden just makes them more enticing. Your body will then crave them physically and psychologically. So when you finally do give in, you’ll cram in as much as you can, because tomorrow you’ll be banning the food all over again.
When there’s a limited resource, demand becomes incredibly high.
So, please, stop banning foods. Stop dieting.
I know that reinstating food can be extremely scary, but trust me: you can eat what you want and still lose fat; you just need to learn how.
Use An Instant Reset
Normally, once we “blow our diet”, we keep eating until the next starting point, which is usually the next day. But what if we could change the next starting point so we can reset sooner?
Think about software sprints. The day after the kick-off, everyone is much more focussed than they had been at the end of the sprint. It’s always quiet, loads of work is getting done. It’s like everyone has been reset. You can use the same idea – divide your day into sprints to reset yourself sooner.
So take a piece of paper and divide your day into 5 time boxes. These don’t have to be evenly spaced, but they should represent the natural transitions of your day.
Here’s one example, from AM to PM:
This might differ from day to day, depending on your schedule.
Now, one of these chunks will be your hot spot (8-9pm in the above example). This is the time of day that is really tough. It’s when you’re less resourceful to navigate a food-related moment. It’s when the desire to eat is most intense.
Maybe this is once you get home from work. Maybe it’s lunch time. Maybe it’s late at night.
Whenever it is, just by acknowledging the specific time that you struggle, will help you.
The purpose of these boxes is three-fold. Firstly, even if you “go off the rails”, the next time box acts as a reset point. An autosave.
The normal reaction is to reset the next day, or at the beginning of the week. But if you make the next time box your reset, you can dramatically reduce the amount of calories consumed between now and tomorrow.
You can say to yourself:
OK, that was a tough moment. I didn’t use the skills I’m learning to navigate that situation. But it’s OK. My next reset is in 20 minutes. I’m going to wipe the slate clean and forget what happened. All that matters is this present moment.
If you can make these time boxes your automatic resets, then you will be well on the way to learning to forgive yourself more often, to get back up much quicker, to strengthen your mental resilience so that no matter what knocks you down, you will know that you can get through it.
Secondly, I want you to rate each time box between -5 and +5, using the following scale:
+5 Perfect day
-5 Ended up in hospital to get my stomach pumped
This is useful to help maintain perspective. It is so easy to exaggerate how badly we are doing.
For example, say the day was going well, then when you got home, you ate a cookie, and then a few more. Your previous thinking might have been “I’ve completely blown this whole day”. But by writing down and rating your time boxes individually, you can maintain perspective.
The third advantage of your boxes is that you have now recognised which time you are most vulnerable. This means you can plan and strategize how best to navigate this time of day.
You could schedule something to do during that time, like catching up with a friend, or going for a walk. You can take extra care to be kind to yourself.
To Sum It Up
- Diets don’t work because they cause you to lose touch with the internal signals for hunger and satiety that are necessary for normal eating over the long term.
- To be at ease with your body — to be able to listen to true hunger signals, and not be fooled by the fake ones — is a skill. You can relearn this skill.
What To Do Next
- The first step is to stop restricting foods. Even if this feels scary, it is the quickest way to get your out-of-control eating back under control.
- Chunk your day into sprints, and use each sprint as an instant reset if you overeat.
- Take extra care around the time of day that you are most vulnerable. Strategize and plan other activities around this time.